Wheel of Fortuna

In college, I read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to gain some general intellectual background to Chaucer and medieval literature.  I liked it quite a lot then, and lately, it seems to be cropping up here and there (including as the philosophical inspiration to the protaganist of that entertaining and vastly overrated work, The Confederacy of Dunces) so once again I am reading the last work of that unfortunate man.  It’s as good as I remember it!

I really like the way the piece gets right to the heart of the matter.  He’s sitting in prison, unjustly accused, wailing “Woe is me!” when a colossal figure of Ms. Philosophia comes for a visit.  She wastes no time in pointing out to him that if he were really a philosophical chap, he would realize that if he is the victim of evil men, it’s only because he permits himself to be!

Mr. B is generally regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages.  That is, he was the “last of the Romans, and the first of the Scholastics,” living in the late 5th Century A.D. under the Ostrogoth successors to the Latin Roman Emperors.  His works were among the most quoted, copied, and taught in the medieval period. He was from an illustrious family, had a brilliant career, a highborn wife, two successful sons, but he ended up being tortured to death in prison by a Barbarian king whom he had pissed off for some reason.  As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, “So it goes…

And that, to be perfectly serious, is part of the message of the The Consolation.  The Wheel of Fortune, so beloved by TV viewers, got its send off into the Middle Ages with Boethius’ work.  I am up, up UP! shouts the king on top…while on the other side the deposed ruler laments, I am down Down, DOWN!  ‘Round and round, and nobody knows where it will stop – it never stops.

As an interpreter and popularizer of Platonic thinking, Boethius, a Christian, elaborated the explanation of how evil can exist in a world ruled by an all powerful God that was begun by Augustine.  This is called theodicy, not to be confused with idiocy. Of course, it turns out that evil doesn’t really exist.

Mr. B. had another argument that I thought was in The Consolation, but which I read in his book on music, it turns out.  All of you high-brow critics will love it:

Boethius points out that there are three types of people who concern themselves with music: theorists, composers, and performers. Of these, the performers are excluded from true musical understanding, … “They … act as slaves, without reasoning or thinking”. The composers, or poets, “compose more with their natural instinct than through the exercise of thought or reason”, but the theorist, on the other hand, “is entirely devoted to reason and thought…”

Boethius draws the conclusion that the theorist is the highest of the three, alone worthy of the name “musician…”

from Boethius’ Three Musicisans

Those who can do, those who cannot become critics…

10 Responses to Wheel of Fortuna

  1. Anonymous says:

    What might the B man have thought of jazz? When you say “evil does not exist” is that your opinion or the authors? I usually argue that the concept itself takes us out of the realm of politics and into the mystical, which I fin d problematic. The along comes Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil” and the fascist tendency and I am less sure.

  2. lichanos says:

    When you say “evil does not exist” is that your opinion or the author’s?

    It’s Boethius’ opinion. See the link to the explanation, derived from Augustine’s refutation of the Manichean heresy. In short:

    God is good and all powerful so evil can’t exist, or it would be equally powerful, and BAD! How to show this is so..? Demonstrate that badness is simply a LACK of goodness as cold is a lack of heat! QED and the heretics are on the run!!

    Seems safe to say that the concept of Jazz would have been beyond Mr. B.

  3. jahsonic says:

    Why is Dunces overrated, and then vastly?

  4. lichanos says:

    Dunces is a long book, and I read it all. It was entertaining, but a one-trick pony, shaggy dog story. Still, it kept me interested, and it was funny.

    Overrated because it won the Pulitzer Prize; the blurbs on the cover talk of it as a literary masterpiece, using very high superlatives; W.Percy, who championed its publishing, describes it in the forward as a piece of work so far above the ordinary entertainment that I wonder what book he was reading; trolling the Web I find comments by admirers that, again, discuss it as a brilliant work that stands above most others.

    Okay, it was fun, and the protagonist is refreshingly outrageous. But people who write about literature should have a basis of comparison beyond their particular enthusiasms. Thus my cranky judgment.

    Also, I had the creepy feeling that I went to school with people just like some of these characters…

  5. jahsonic says:

    Ah there is the rub:

    Dunces is a long book, and I read it all.

    A thoroughly unpostmodern position, I quit after 70 pages, I have the fondest memories. 😉


  6. jahsonic says:

    And it introduced me to Wheel of Fortune by Boethius and this whole Middle Ages philosophy I shall have to return to one day.

  7. Man of Roma says:

    Interesting how, even if from such different backgrounds and far locations, our interests sort of cross each other. It stimulates me this idea – you link to it in another post of yours – of how evil can exist with a God immensely good. It is much debated, of course, and I am no theologian, plus I am not interested in religions from a religious point of view. They interest me only (mainly?) as vital parts of the different human cultures.

    For example it can be puzzling how Milton (whose poetry I like a lot) was more successful in depicting Satan than Adam or God. It might provide ideas on how a Puritan in some way loved evil more than good, since almost all that was good – the joys of life – was considered sinful. Hence evil, deep down, was desired more than good. Don’t know if it makes sense. I am in a hurry. Just wanted to provide an example of how religion can be culturally revealing.

    By the way, which are your studies? I am graduated in arts. Plus I have some music studies (guitar, piano and some composition) and computer engineering. So now I guess we get to Boethius and music.

    I don’t agree with him. I started as a performer, then became a composer. The highest degree to me is the performer-composer. A critic, as you also seem to suggest, is usually either a failed composer or a failed performer. Or both. Which is me. I am both, at my age, ah ah ah.

    But I was fortunate enough to experience some bliss. Yes, music can be terribly beautiful.

    All the best
    from this side of the West

  8. lichanos says:

    By the way, which are your studies? I am graduated in arts…

    Only because I am anonymous will I provide this info…I have a BA in History of Art and Archaeology, and I studied philosophy a lot. I also have degrees in civil engineering and geography. I work as an engineer, but I design and build nothing – just make maps, databases, and websites.

    I wish I knew how to play a musical instrument. I can converse in French if I am Quebec or Paris, but not that well. Like most Americans, I am basically mono-lingual, to my shame.

    I love Italian art, architecture, and food. I know that there is a lot wrong with contemporary Italian society, but if I could choose a city center in which to live, it would be Rome!

    I hope you will look around my blog and leave some comments. So few people seems to share our interests, and most readers leave no comments.

    Best regards,

  9. Man of Roma says:

    I will surely comment here and there. Ciao

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